Who: Rhodey, Wanda, Candice Lee (NPC), Doctor Strange What: Interrogation on The Raft When: Now. Notes: Gamewide plot tie-in.
"I really do appreciate your doing this, Wanda, and you too, Strange." Rhodey appeared cool and in control, but he was a little anxious underneath it all. He was definitely leaning on his military status here in ways he probably wasn't supposed to, but you didn't get to his rank without relying on a little gut feel here and there. And you certainly didn't spend decades as Tony Stark's best friend and colleague-in-arms without learning a few things about when to take a risk. This was the moment for it, because if Lee had been influenced by something that made her pick up the trident that had caused all the trouble last year, or had driven the fury she'd wielded it with, they all needed to know: SHIELD, the Avengers, and the mystics. "I'm ready whenever you are."
Stephen was no stranger to cutting every corner when needed, or to following his intuition. In this instance, he had a very compelling reason to want every precaution in place: Wanda. She was heavily pregnant, a soon to be mother of twins, and in his medical opinion, should probably be resting and staying away from additional stressors.
But she volunteered for this, and he would be a bad friend and mentor if he refused to help her do an important task like this one. There was no one else who might be able to get the same effective results as someone with telepathic powers. He had the exact location and Rhodey had the clearance, but it was best to proceed with caution where governments were involved.
"Be careful," Stephen said to them both, remembering the last time they freed Stark from the Raft, when the cracks first made themselves known in this universe. To Wanda he said, "They have ways of dampening powers. I'll remain on this side of the portal, but it will be minimized until you're ready to return. Say something for me to open it wider."
He turned and opened the portal, revealing the interior of the super secure underwater prison. He stood aside for them to go through, one corner of the red cape gesturing for the pair to go right ahead, sir and madam.
Rhodey grinned at the cape, whose antics amused him, and stepped through, ready to handle all the paperwork that came with visiting the Raft so that Wanda didn't have to deal with anything that would bother her. He couldn't help it if the guards stared but his bearing and uniform gave him some authority to make people behave, and suggested that no harassment of an official guest would be permitted.
The last time Wanda had been here, she’d been in Candice’s position - a prisoner, that is, housed in a special cell designed just for her. Though perhaps one could argue that the strait jacket and shock collar, which felt metallic and icy, the cold spreading across her skin like lacy tide on a freezing wintry beach, had all been a little much. She’d been miserable in the Raft but luckily Steve broke out his teammates as soon as he could.
Now, it was different. She was there on official business - and she trusted that Rhodey would help things go smoothly. Maybe she also still felt a little bit of guilt, for what happened to him during the airport skirmish many years ago. Besides, it was her job as an Avenger to help however she could anyway, so she planned to now.
“I’ll see you soon,” she said to Stephen, before stepping through the portal. Once she did, she turned toward Rhodey, hand resting on her belly. “Ready when you are - where are we off to?”
"This way," the guard who'd met them and processed their documents said, and led them into the guts of the Raft. Wanda had been a special prisoner, but without her trident, Candice had proven to be a normal human. She was in a different part of the Raft, one Wanda wasn't familiar with.
The guard let them into the interrogation room and the door closed behind them. Candice was waiting for them.
Inside the interrogation room, was Candice Lee. There wasn't much that was remarkable about her. She looked like an average middle-aged woman, short in height and dark haired, but from the rigid way she sat and her severely slicked back hair, everything about her seemed comprised of hard edges. Even Candice's facial expression could rival a diamond on the hardness scale.
She said nothing as they entered and showed no signs of questioning why they were there, either.
If Wanda wanted to sit, Rhodey was ready to pull a chair for her.
"Ms Lee," he began, his voice taking on all the military bearing and formality that he left off with the Avengers. "I'm James Rhodes, US Air Force, and this is Ms Maximoff of the Avengers. We're here today to ask you some questions. Do you have anything you'd like to ask before we start?"
Pretty much anytime there was a place for her to sit, Wanda was going to do so - being on her feet was tiresome, her ‘dogs’ always barking and hurting, or however the saying went. And besides, if they were going to interrogate Candice, being ‘on her level’ seemed to be a good idea - she’d be less likely to answer questions if she had a military man and a pregnant lady towering over her.
Not that she actually needed to answer the questions. Wanda could simply take the answers, like plucking berries off a bushel, but she’d see how it began.
So she sat, ankles crossed, since tucking one knee over the other wasn’t an option (her belly was far too big to do such a thing). She didn’t say anything, just looked expectantly toward Candice for an answer.
"I do not," Candice replied to Rhodey's question, her entire demeanor as cool as ice. It was impossible not to know who War Machine and Scarlet Witch were. The red haired young woman could be considered inhuman, a result of HYDRA's testing on humans. There was no love lost there, since inhumans were nothing more than tools. Used when needed, and to be put back into a safe and secure place when not. That she was spawning potentially infested children was of some mild interest, but she was certain others out there would take heed as well.
Indoctrination as a HYDRA operative ran deep, and as the right hand woman to General Hale, she had proven both her worth and her dedication to the cause. She folded both hands with only the softest clink of the handcuffs keeping her latched to the table, and silently waited for them to ask her a question.
Rhodey ran through the standard set of introductory questions: name, birthdate, background and career information. He had paperwork with the basic information about Lee and was mostly running this set of questions to see how she would respond and to give Wanda a baseline for working with the woman's mind: if she was telling the truth or lying or had some kind of magic or something right on top of her mind, something that Wanda could perceive but Fury and Rhodey would miss.
"Candice Lee. February twelfth. Graduated HYDRA Preparatory Academy with honors. Assistant to Brigadier General Hale, U.S. Air Force. HYDRA operative."
Every answer was rote, but true. Candice reveled in being entirely dedicated to her life's work, and worked loyally for General Hale before her untimely death. Even after Hale wanted to collaborate SHIELD under duress, Candice remained a devout devotee to HYDRA's ideology. Her gaze did not falter, her expression did not crack. She was strictly to the point, a woman who was utterly dedicated to her work and to the premise taught in the prep academy: To rise and seize the future.
Candice was calm, which made slipping into her mind even easier - there was some resistance, of course, walls built by conditioning and practice. But Wanda gave it a little extra oomph, lassoing her mind with Candice’s - she pushed past the walls and slipped in, quiet as a cemetery and careful not to disturb anything.
She merely flipped through memories, exploring the deeper recesses of the woman’s mind to figure out how far the HYDRA conditioning went. From what Wanda could see, it was ingrained in a dangerous way, fire in the walls. Though it wasn’t entirely just mental conditioning either - she saw...something else.
Something that felt and tasted familiar, the magic and mystery of Sokovia. A curse, a dark spell, cast through elaborate ritual and scratched onto the lead surface of a thin tablet. She saw the tablet before the words scribed onto it had been used to infiltrate Candice’s mind and poison her - it was rolled up, nails driven into it, placed underground though rescued from the wreckage after Sokovia was destroyed.
This artifact - it had damaged her. Wanda knew. She would tell the others, but for now she gently extricated her mental presence from Candice’s mind.
She glanced at Rhodey, as if to say, I have what I need.
Rhodey nodded when he caught Wanda's look. "Good," he said, continuing, "And we'll run through the next set of questions." Which was what he'd briefed Wanda that they'd do: just finish the basic set of questions about what Lee had been doing to avoid alerting her of what they'd found. Also, she might let something else slip to Wanda.
"Let's go through the next bit then: where did you get the trident?"
Candice gathered that they got what they came for. She looked infinitely proud about that for a few seconds, like her being here to do that was a means to an end and she got what she wanted too. After all, she wasn't even hiding what they wanted to find.
She looked from Rhodey to Wanda, staring at the girl as though she was a loathsome object and not a person, before calmly saying, "Why don't you ask the test subject. Lost things are so easy to pick up and use."
That could apply to Wanda or the trident. Candy didn't look ready to budge or answer any further questions.
"I am," said Rhodey. "Wanna try again?"
Candice looked like she couldn't care less what anyone thought, because she didn't. Her job was done. And she wasn't saying anything further.
“The trident washed ashore in a small South African fishing village,” Wanda supplied, while looking straight at Candice. Her eyes glowed crimson, and this time she didn’t even try to hide the fact that she was using her powers, wasn’t gentle about it - she could liquify this woman’s brain, if she so pleased, and she wanted her to be aware of that being an option on the table. “She does not know how HYDRA was aware it would appear there, she just knows she was told to retrieve it like how a dog fetches a bone and brings it to its master. She did so without question. Because she is used to blindly following orders. Because she is pathetic.”
Her eyes returned to their cornflower hue, and Wanda stood. Were they done here? It seemed so - she turned and headed out, and she didn’t say goodbye. Just reiterated pathetic, and she didn’t need to say it to Candice - the word reverberated in her skull like a gong.
Oh it hurt, and she'd have a headache, but her conditioning and sheer stubbornness meant she remained still. Despite the pain of that word reverberating, Candy smiled so suddenly and sweetly, that it looked like her face might crack from being unaccustomed to doing so.
"Take care," she said, and it sounded like both a dismissal and a warning. She would wait for the guards to take her back to her cell, now that her part was done.
That was a significant breach of protocol and Rhodey might get reprimanded for it, or he might not; Ross' brand of jackassery didn't like mouthy prisoners. But after what she'd said to Wanda, Rhodey would never say a word about how Wanda had pulled that out of her mind. He ignored Lee, because threats from people in the Raft didn't bother him, and said to Wanda, "We're done here. Let's go."
He escorted her out to the central area where they'd arrive and signalled Strange that it was time to bring them back to New York. Rhodey didn't know what Wanda had to tell them, but it was something interesting. That much was clear.
Stephen opened the portal more to them, so they could pass through. He waited expectantly on the other side, far enough back that they could walk through without bumping into him.
"Did you find anything of interest," he asked, and looked at Wanda like he was trying to visually reassure himself that the young woman was unharmed.
"Wanda did a great job in the face of extreme provocation," Rhodey told Strange. He wasn't sure Wanda would want to talk about the insults she'd faced and this way Strange could find out without Wanda having to repeat what Lee had said to her. He could tell Strange in private, later. He looked around for a chair to offer to Wanda so she could get off her feet.
"Thank you, Colonel, for ensuring her safety," Stephen said, closing the portal once they were both through. He couldn't even stand the sight of that place, knowing that Wanda was once imprisoned in Ross' personal agenda prison. He could imagine being there was beyond stressful, and asked Wanda in a lower tone, "Are you all right?"
The main floor area around the staircase had several dust old wingback chairs and velvet settees. There were several throughout the Sanctum, and Doctor Strange could have them all sitting and sharing a nice cup of tea in the blink of an eye. He didn't want to jostle Wanda or the children by using that spell, so he had three chairs skidding toward them with the crook of a finger. They could both offer her an arm or a hand to help her sit if she wanted it.
“I’m fine,” Wanda nodded, with a glance at Stephen, sincerity and a small smile; she even reached for his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze to extra reassure him. Insults didn’t bother her - after everything she’d been through and everything she lost, what did it matter that some HYDRA lapdog said mean things to her? Raindrops rolling off a duck’s back, really.
She was grateful for the chance to sit again though, arranging herself in one of the chairs. “I actually feel a little sorry for her. HYDRA’s mental conditioning - it runs very deep,” she said. It wasn’t as bad as with Bucky, but it would likely need the same dismantling process that Shuri had come up with, if on a lesser scale. “There are no trigger words though. The main aspect of her mind control comes from an artifact.”
Surely they were tired of artifacts, given their dealings with the trident. But at least an artifact was something tangible. The mind was not. “It is a tablet that was buried underground and must have found its way to the surface when Sokovia was destroyed,” she continued. “On it, a spell is scribed - it is dark magic. Whomever found the tablet, they used the words to ensnare her and now she has to do everything she is told to do.”
Stephen gave Wanda's hand a squeeze in return, ignoring the ache in his ruined hands. He was sitting in an instant, facing the other two chairs as though he had been sitting there for hours and not the last couple of seconds it took to get there.
Warm tea cups were conjured in everyone's hand, filled to an acceptable three quarters full, so that no one startled by that would spill the tea. Although some tea in the form of information was surely about to be spilled. And that was what Stephen was keenly interested in. He nodded to Rhodey to take a seat, and looked troubled about this development.
"I see. If possible, I'd like to get a mental picture of what you were able to get from Candice," he told Wanda, and then looked over at Rhodey. "It seems we have a larger problem than we thought. If she's not leading HYDRA, someone else is, or several someones."
Rhodey nodded at that news as he settled into his chair: it confirmed his suspicions. "I was thinking the same thing. And it's someone who knows how to use this tablet, or has someone who does." Which might be someone who could just read the thing, but might be another magician. None of this was good news.
The mug of tea warmed Wanda’s hands, heat seeping in, which was nice after feeling cold in the Raft. She’d been glad to help, because at least (as it turned out) she was familiar with this artifact, but also glad to get the hell out of that prison.
“I will project a picture to you,” she told Stephen, closing her eyes. When she opened them they were scarlet as her moniker, and she focused on him, lassoing her mind with his.
It was a tablet that looked like others found across the world - in Greece, Italy, Egypt, the Middle East. Relatively small, the color and texture of lead, the letters of the curse etched into it. He had probably seen something similar before. Maybe he even had one or two in the Sanctum; they were generally bad news, because dark spells were scribed onto them.
She sipped her tea, the picture pushed into Stephen’s mind, and her crimson glow faded. “What is the next move?” she asked both of them then.
Stephen latched onto the mental image, taking time to mull over both the object and the situation. If Candy wasn't the new leader of HATE, as they originally believed, it was possible the many heads of HYDRA had grown back over time. The Mystics had long been aware of the German's rogue science division from World War II, known for stealing and manipulating relics like the Tesseract. It wasn't difficult to imagine that they would find that fine line between magic and science to unlock a relic's potential, or to use them to further influence those already aligned to their cause. In that era, innumerable artworks and artifacts were collected, concealed, or even lost in networks of dark tunnels or underground bunkers. This tablet could easily be one of them.
To make matters worse, any second incarnation of HYDRA would be more vigilant about covering tracks, or giving away further hints at what else they had up their sleeves.
"It's familiar," Stephen admitted, both hands cupped around the cup as he stared down at it, like the steaming tea held all the answers to the entire multiverse. "Such cursed tablets were shown to disciples, swaying them further into thralldom. Even if we know what it is, or when it was uncovered, it's likely this tablet is kept carefully hidden and being shielded. It's also possible that Candice Lee doesn't even know who the real leaders are, or who ordered that tablet to be used on her. That means others currently aligned with HATE might not know, or remember, either."
Finally, Stephen looked up at them while saying, "You'll need to inform Stark. I'll look through the books and Sanctums for a similar object to study. If any of you locate any suspicious tablets, do not look at it. And do not touch it, in any way. Even exerting a magical force might activate an unexpected latent power or additional curse within. Notify me immediately."
"We'll do that," Rhodey said with a look at Wanda. "And I'll talk to the military and tell them not to mess around with any tablets as well." It was going to take some thinking to figure out how to do that without making Thunderbolt Ross want to grab the things himself, but Rhodey was sure he was up to the challenge.
“Of course,” Wanda nodded. There was no way she was laying hands on a tablet of any kind - she was familiar with them too, having heard of their effects while growing up in Sokovia; those who practiced magic lived in isolation from the more urban communities, their rituals were at dawn, midnight, sunset. They worked with animals, candles, flowers - it was whimsical, almost. Quite mystical. She had avoided that sort of thing, naturally, thanks to her and Pietro needing to strike out on their own - it had been easier to blend in, in the city, rather than try to integrate elsewhere.
Whatever was going on with HYDRA, or their offshoots, she knew they’d all take care of it. And she’d do whatever she could to help bring them down once again.